HOUSTON, I’M RUNNING AWAY FROM MY PROBLEMS - A LOOK AT UNCOOL BACKPACKING
(OR, HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE TEXAS TRAILS)
Words and Photos by Taylor “Haiku” Bell
To those of you that have always lived someplace "cool" - as in, an iconic magnet for outdoor activities - you've likely never felt that sort of reluctant forced friendship with the environment you call home. But, as Texan Taylor Bell points out in this post, maybe it's just a matter of focusing on what you do have to see there's beauty there - that sometimes what makes it cool is just how "uncool" it is! Have you got examples of finding some solid adventures and rewarding experiences in unlikely places you live, have lived in, or visited? Share them below!
Oh god, how we love to say that everything's bigger here. How we love to love pointing it out when it's the case and ignoring it when it's not. But ultimately, is it true? I suppose that occasionally it is. For example: when it comes to lifted trucks, suburban parking lots, or vast, mobius expanses of private ranchland, then you bet your bottom dollar everything is a lot bigger in Texas. After all, 96% of land in this state is private property. Jeff Bezos owns 400,000 acres of west Texas. The heirs to the King Ranch (who, naturally enough, have a line of trucks named after them) own 911,000 acres. That's two families alone that steward a chunk of Texas that's almost the size of Delaware. This is all to say that, conversely, things certainly are not bigger here when it comes to public recreation opportunities.
The very small amount of public land that we have in this state is, therefore, a pretty sacred thing. Having been born before the progressive mid-century conservation policies that set aside massive swaths of the west, this state has been mostly left to cobble together hiking trails and outdoor recreation opportunities wherever we can. The CDT might be 3,100 miles long, but have you heard about the Lone Star Hiking Trail?! It's our longest footpath, spanning 96 miles from one border of the state's largest National Forest to its other extreme. And, if you can believe it, only ten miles of it is on paved roads.
(Plus, it boasts an absolutely grueling climb to the high point)
That isn't to say that there aren't trails, and there isn't scenery to love here, though. There are. There is. Especially further out west. But, besides that, where I live in Fort Worth, there's this weird kind of double-speaking going on recently. Everyone outwardly projects this love/hate relationship with the city and, at large, Texas. I see some folks publicly claim to hate living here, but that's because, later on, it becomes understood that we're all saying it because we want to keep it a secret. But the ribbing has always seemed a little too genuine, you know? As if the only way to safely criticize a place is to pretend you're being self-effacing about it. I feel like Texas is a special kind of complicated, though. Do we actually have that secret love for it? Or is the solidarity that we project in our pretend-hatred just a coping mechanism for not being able to live in, like, Asheville or Moab or Flagstaff or Bozeman or Denver or New York or something? I don't know. I think it's both at the same time. After all, I think it's safe to say that nowhere in Texas, outside of maybe Big Bend NP in April, is experiencing any actual type of over-tourism, and that's something that definitely can't be taken for granted. There are things to love about anywhere you live for sure. And I think we do actually love it, in one way or another, because we also love the difficulty of loving it. Nobody likes the easy love of beautiful mountain or beach towns. That shit is just for rich people who never had to have any imagination.
And speaking of imagination, that's one of the fun parts about backpacking in Texas: it requires a bit of creativity most of the time. We have so few established long trails here that route creation is sometimes less of a hobby and more of a necessity. For instance, last winter, a friend and I put together our own route in Hill Country State Natural Area that follows all of the outer trails to form a 25-mile loop. And doing pretty much every hikeable mile in Colorado Bend State Park forms a similar loop as well.
(Complete with secret swimming holes)
Then you’ve got the shorter routes worth linking together inside other parks as well. Pedernales Falls, Mineral Wells (if you add the trailway), Hueco Tanks, and Big Thicket all have the potential to at least make two days/one night out of them. I’ve blown through so many great weekends this way.
And finally, further out west, there are the psychedelic, off-trail loops through canyons and along ridges in Big Bend Ranch State Park and Guadalupe Mountains National Park. They were my introduction to off-trail backpacking and wayfinding and are now some of my favorite places in the world to visit. These are easily some of the most rugged areas in the country, and the experience of exploring them just feels so far removed from other backpacking trips I’ve been on. The inscrutable challenges and rewards of hikes like these are something that no amount of Texas’ standardized testing could’ve prepared me for.
(Definitely not a 3mph pace up there on the McKitterick Ridge Loop in GuMo)
And that's ultimately why I'm here: to emphasize how rewarding that kind of difficulty can sometimes be. Because no type of love is more valid than another. For example, I once heard the poet Michael Longley say that "the cranes of Belfast are as much a part of Ireland as the mountains of Connemara." And if you'll forgive the loftiness, I think the same can be said of Texas within the rest of the USA when it comes to nature. The endless limestone formations, dense cedar forests, sagebrush & savanna grasslands, and flat pine expanses that dominate so much of this state are, however boring, still a fundamental part of the country's geological identity. And to overlook them is, in a way, to be in love with convenience. To fail to love them is to fail to consider them. Remember that one scene in 500 Days of Summer when Zooey Deschanel said that Ringo Starr was her favorite Beatle because nobody loves Ringo? Texas is like Ringo, except with a different accent.
I've spent so much of my life walking around this state, and I think that, at this point, it's safe to say that I've done basically all of the official – and a growing amount of unofficial – backpacking routes in Texas. And if you'll forgive even more loftiness, Steinbeck has this famous quote about how Texas is a state of mind and that people who live here don't explore or inspect what that means—both to be from here and to love being from here. And, well, maybe I just did all these trails to prove him wrong, because I've spent so much time exploring and inspecting all of Texas that now I finally feel sort of qualified to point angrily at him and to tell y'all all about some of the things there are to see here.
(Spoiler: It's a lot of limestone and cedar [also: who can guess whether this was in Possum Kingdom, Good Water Loop, Colorado Bend, Mineral Wells, or Lake Texoma?])
Ultimately, I think I'll always be more interested in managing other folks' expectations than taking a dump on my home state's nature, though. Because it's true: the distance between things here can really mess with you if you let it. You've got to embrace the slower rhythms, meditative flatness, spiritual mundanity. I got into birding a while ago because of that. It suddenly felt compelling to start looking at the world through a loupe, some misplaced infatuation with examining things a bit more closely (birding in Texas is especially great, by the way). I want to give hugs to things that are so often overlooked and neglected. Plus, I refuse to consider all that walking a waste of time.
(Life imitates art, and some art is incredibly boring after all)
All this being said, it's pretty evident that Texas isn't the PNW, the Colorado Plateau, or even the Appalachians. Geologically speaking, nothing is bigger here. Except maybe the grasslands or the giant slab of frackable shale that I live above. Everything here underwhelms on geological and topographic levels. It's a state of grandiose subtlety, really. But it's really worth addressing the beauty in that, as opposed to the more-easily-recognizable beauty of the Rockies or the Sierras. You step out of your car anywhere in Yosemite, Glacier, or the Maroon Bells and have an incredible view just handed to you. Here you've got to go and seek it out a little more.
(Unless you really love walking through the cotton fields of the panhandle, then it's pretty straightforward)
I actually loved that hike in the panhandle too. It was on the Caprock Trailway. The whole trail is completely flat, full of burs, and we had to cache all of our water. Sounds kinda miserable right? But you know what else?! I think I saw more wildlife in those 2.5 days than I did in a whole month on the PCT or AT. Multiple packs of coyotes, a veritable parliament of great horned owls, herds of wild hogs, turkeys, deer, jackrabbits, hawks, and an awesome stay in a historic hotel that, on the weekends, has great live music & beer. Eat your heart out Jerry Jeff Walker, viva Turkey, Texas.
But, in the same way, that you so rarely have "Natural Beauty" handed to you here, the trails themselves and the hiking aren't so accessible either. There's planning, logistics, and a generally constant prying beneath the surface. It pays dividends to have friends with cars because at least 90% of the trails are point to point. There's no public transport to a single backpacking trail anywhere in this state (as far as I know), Ubers would be wildly and prohibitively expensive, and info on the internet is often outdated. Every trail has some element of surprise in that sense because you can never fully research or know what to expect here.
(Although if you want to do The Trail Between the Lakes, then you can expect a trail that’s between two lakes)
We don't have a single FarOut (formerly known as Guthook) guide for anywhere in this state yet, and I take that more as a challenge than a point of pride or shame. Hiking in Texas pretty much necessitates going off trail, learning to read a compass, and understanding the subtleties of the topo map. These are great skills worth having for anyone who loves backpacking, and I'm embarrassed that it took me so long to learn them. I never really had to have that skill on most of the bigger trails in this country, which is its own argument. Still, one thing I can say is that knowing them now will always add an extra dimension of comfort, safety, and intrigue to any hike that I do in the future.
(For example: apparently this is the trail, Guadalupe Ridge Trail in GuMo)
Is that just the sound of me getting old, though? Probably. Next thing you know I'm going to be wandering the aisles of home depot comparing different paint swatches and weather-resistant screws.
I adhered so religiously to the red line on my phone when I was hiking the AZT, the PCT, and the CT. But it's not really possible to do that here. So many trails rely on intermittent water sources with no real-time updates to them. And with trails themselves almost always being near-deserted (outside of Big Bend NP), there's always this general sense of self-reliance and wayfinding that permeates most corners of this state that you don't always get in other parts. You know, sometimes those who wander are in fact, very lost.
(Uhhhhhhhh this is definitely the right arroyo for the Rancherias Loop)
Who stewards our truncated yet beloved trail system in this state, though? In the parks, it's the parks or effectively sometimes nobody, but outside of that, it's kind of interesting. One random piece of Texas trivia is that a ton of our trails were cut and are maintained by chapters of the Sierra Club. I didn't learn this until I was at the trailhead a lot of the time because even their website makes little mention of it. The Lone Star Trail, Trail Between the Lakes, Big Thicket, and a lot of Hill Country's hikes are thanks to the Sierra Club, and for the most part, they do a great job maintaining them too.
(Although, just because the Lone Star Trail is well-blazed doesn't mean it's always easy to follow either)
Like I said before, though: I wouldn't have been able to hike a single one of these trails if I didn't have some fantastically flexible friends and this slowly dying 2009 Ford Focus. And so it follows naturally that one byproduct of all these numerous barriers to accessibility is, indisputably, solitude. Apart from the parking lot at the 1st trailhead, we didn't see another hiker on the Lone Star Trail for four days. There was one other tent in 2.5 days on the Caprock Trailway. Literally nobody on the Trail Between the Lakes, Rancherias Loop, or the Guadalupe Ridge Trail. And so, with the lack of access to both information and many trails themselves, most Texas backpacking can be a very solitary experience.
(Unless you're with a sweet crew for the Big Bend NP South Rim).
And that's another thing that's just fundamentally different from so many of the bigger trails. This state is so huge and largely unoccupied there's so much space to be alone. Even the back roads seem to be reaching out, yearning for something beyond the telephone poles at the vanishing point. Sometimes it's intoxicating; sometimes, it's terrifying. It's not an experience that everyone seeks when hiking, but it's probably an important one to have. Being alone with yourself, being tuned into nature a bit more, is a valuable experience that everyone deserves to have. It sucks that we have to work so much harder for that here, but I think it's also true that it does sometimes make it that much sweeter.
(Guadalupe Peak at sunset, let the haters call you crazy for night hiking back down)
Texas has taught me so many backpacking lessons that I don't think I would've ever learned anywhere else. And I think that it can really inform any trip you'll take in the future too if you let it. All of those unknowns, all that private property, all that chips & salsa and those Lone Star beers, what are each of them saying? I can't exactly hear, but I think they're saying that it's almost always worth it to stop at the swimming hole when you see one, to pause & smell the cedars (unless you're allergic), to preponderize the maidenhair ferns that have divined themselves into existence among some of the world's most improbable water sources, to stop and admire the dope ass sunset, even if it's from the parking lot of a Wal-Mart in Benbrook. Because remember: it's free to sleep for a night at rest stops in this state, and it's always free to recreate on "navigable waterways." So drive around, take a dip, chill out and have a siesta under a live oak, consider the spatial distribution of plants in the desert, and most importantly, be comfortable making up your own routes because that's where so much of the magic in this state is. It just requires a bit of a closer look. But first, take a look at this meme I made: