Deep in the Heart of Texas

I have previously written about my favorite spot in the Davis Mountains of Texas, which I last saw in 2004. Naturally, this view topped my list of things to see when I rolled through the area in October of 2015. So, after a chucking my luggage into the hotel room and grabbing a quick dinner, I drove up into the hills, wondering if the valley was still as beautiful and unspoiled as I remembered.

Absolutely perfect autumn weather for an evening drive in the mountains, just as it was in ’04. The sights along the road all seemed familiar, and very little, if anything, appeared to have changed. I took that as a good omen. Anticipation was reaching the saturation point, and certain landmarks looming ahead told me that I was very close to my destination. Rounding the final curve, I pulled over, cut the motor and smiled broadly. There it was, exactly as I had left it. Welcome back, Carl. Eleven years had changed nothing…

…though it’s a safe bet that the trees had grown a little taller and a little fuller in my absence.

I walked over to the edge of the slope and stood there, basking in the scenery and the silence, which was broken only by a few chirping birds and insects, and three rather clumsy deer stumbling down the steep hillside behind me.

At this point, I placed my cell phone on a small tripod and recorded two minutes of video, which you can view here.

So, was everything the same after eleven years? That verdict would require the onset of total darkness, still a couple of hours away. Seemed like a great excuse to continue driving through the mountains, watching as the final moments of daylight painted the sky and the landscape…

…and then back to the spot in time to watch the young crescent moon as it fell slowly behind the hills to the west…

Now it was time to prepare for the main event. The nearby McDonald Observatory was built here for a very good reason, as the Davis Mountains are home to some of the darkest skies in North America. The folks at the observatory have even assisted local residents and businesses in procuring outdoor lighting fixtures that minimize light pollution. And plenty of other people in the area are behind the effort to keep the skies dark.

When I came here back in ’04, I was blown away by the starlight on display, an intensity unequaled elsewhere in my travels. Sadly, I only had a low-resolution pocket digital camera with me on that trip, so astrophotography was off the menu. This time, I brought the gear to make it happen.

Looking at satellite images of this area, I spotted a few buildings within this large valley that appeared to be the homes of ranchers. I don’t know if they existed during my last visit or if they were recently constructed. Regardless, I was hoping that they wouldn’t spoil the view.

Darkness was now firmly in command, and the show in the sky was nothing short of stellar, once again. And happily, the stars were the only source of light visible in any direction; the valley remained dark. If any of the homes down there had outdoor lights burning, they were buried in the rolling hills and invisible from my vantage point.

Adding to the romance of the evening, the coyotes took up their call, just as they did two weeks earlier as I was shooting the Harvest Moon eclipse in South Dakota. For me, that sound is the most wonderful part of photographing the night sky in the West.

I hope this area will maintain its sublime beauty for a long time to come. And I hope it won’t be eleven more years before I return.

The Spot

Valley

No, it’s not an oil painting…just a low-resolution video frame captured in 2004 in the Davis Mountains of western Texas, one of my favorite parts of North America. Stumbling upon a valley this beautiful, bathed in evening sunlight, is certainly just cause for stopping and gawking. But it was on the return trip in the dark of night that my mind was completely blown.

Parking in this same spot and shutting off the engine and the headlights, I was immediately swallowed by darkness and silence of an intensity that I had never before experienced. Once the shock abated to the point where I could actually move, I got out and walked over to the rim of the valley.

Now, the darkness was no longer darkness. There was starlight…incredible starlight. Though there was no moon in the sky, the blazing stars were bright enough to reveal the outline of the hills in the distance, and then the patchwork of trees, brush and grass. As my eyes continued to adjust, I could even discern various shades of green.

The air was quite still, but soft sounds began to emerge…a bird rustling in a nearby bush, a pebble rolling a short distance down the hill, and the zing of a few insects, likely some species of cricket.

While I was awed by what I was seeing and hearing and feeling, I was equally thrilled by what was missing from this moment—the twenty-first century. The panorama contained no power lines, no cell towers, no buildings. I scanned my entire 360-degree vista and was elated that I could not locate a single artificial light source.

From where I stood, there was absolutely no visible sign of human influence other than the road and the car behind me, which I dared not look at for the next several minutes; no audible sign other than the fading metallic tick of the Pontiac’s engine cooling in the night air.

I don’t remember how long I stood there in my hypnotic state, but I was lucid enough to know that I didn’t want to leave. Once I did depart, I knew that I would never forget how it felt to look across that valley on that night, and to know that, for a few moments, I had it all to myself.

Large tracts of unspoiled wilderness have always fascinated me, and I’ll continue to seek out such places—on the plains, on the tundra, in the mountains and in the desert. I’ve been to a handful of locations that were also quite sublime in their raw beauty and silence, but this one stands out as my favorite. Even so, I hope it won’t be long before it moves down to second place.

I plan to return to The Spot the next time I visit western Texas. Is it too much to hope that, after eleven years, the valley is still pristine?