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Turning off of Chispa Road’s crisp smooth pavement deep in the heart of West Texas, I veer onto what seems to be an unassuming stretch of dirt road.  “Take a left at the fork in the road about ten miles in,” Fred had told me.  “Unlock and pass through the gate then drive right into the ranch.”  Driving right into an unexpected driving adventure is just what lie ahead of me.

The thirty thousand acre Coal Mine Ranch is a privately owned investment and playground for a group of businessmen who have called the ranch their sanctuary for more than twenty years.  On the rear side of the Sierra Vieja Mountain Range, a world away from the flat grassy desert plains of Highway 90 and thirty miles of rough dirt road winding through steep arroyos from the end of the pavement on Chispa Road, is the Coal Mine Ranch. 

Less than midway, with the pavement far behind me, the only sound I hear is the gravel and rock being churned by my 4×4’s wheels and hitting the underside of the vehicle.  Clank, pop, clackity clack, in an erratic yet rhythmic cadence. 

Lightning fast jackrabbits race by every so often; otherwise, there is no sign of life save for the desert brush,  blooming yuccas along the way and a petrified rattlesnake or two.  I reach for my mobile phone only to see there is no signal.  Immediately, thoughts of the 4×4 breaking down, a flat tire, or more dramatically, a sudden ailment race through my head.   Who would find me?

No one would find me and I had convinced myself of this.  “Keep on going,” I told myself after the first 60° dive into an arroyo and a serious rev of the engine in a low grinding gear to carry me up and out at the other side.  And forward I traveled through several more arroyos with bright clear blue skies above and a piping hot West Texas sun glaring down upon me until I reached a tunnel, twenty feet high and fifty yards deep, blasted from solid rock more than a hundred years ago. 

At last, after a wild hour and a half adventure drive to what felt like the middle of nowhere, I turn the corner to find the Coal Mine Ranch.  What lie behind me is what some would call extreme terrain with civilization somewhere behind that .  Directly ahead of me was a modern ranch house, a feeling of peace and solitude as well as a fantastic time for introspection. 

The ranch lies on the rear side of the Sierra Vieja mountains, a world away from the flat grassy desert plains of High- way 90.  From the end of the pavement on Chispa Road, thirty miles of rough dirt road winding through steep arroyos lead to the Coal Mine Ranch.  This road features its own tunnel, twenty feet high and fifty yards deep, blasted from solid rock by Chinese migrants.  How did they ever find their way deep into the rugged and unforgiving West Texas landscape

Eighty-five-million-year-old fossils of clams, turtle shells, coral, and snails can be found below the sandstone bluffs where once a river delta said to be six hundred miles wide—bigger than the Amazon— fanned out as it approached the sea. Deeply nestled in West Texas, the ranch is about solitude, introspection, and the crackling of the campfire at night.

The rugged West Texas landscape is most definitely the master of the scenario but the adventure is what one gains internally from the experience.

El Capitan, projecting from Texas’s highest mountain range, watches over me as I wander the barren salt flat at its base.   A pulsating wind whips down from the Guadalupe Mountain range as I survey the area for the ideal spot to set up my camera gear.  Each of my steps disrupts the slightly soft, cracked surface, leaving an unmistakable trail behind.  I stop, making sure my footprints are out of the image frame, when all of a sudden a blast of wind rips off my hat, sending it in a rapid tumble across the dry lake bed.  I lurch for it, my hand grabbed empty air, then I stood still and watched the hat whirl into the dusty West Texas sky and tumble only to disappear into the desert brush half a mile away. 

Strangely, there was an odd delight for me watching this, and I must wonder if El Capitan let out a slight chuckle at nature’s power over me.  Perhaps one day I will venture back in search of the lost hat, though I would be more inclined to search for new ways to capture these scenes in my lens.

The Guadalupe Mountains encompass parts of the most extensive Permian lime- stone fossil reef in the world.  Over two hundred fifty million years ago, a four- hundred-mile-long limestone reef formed along a shelf in the Permian Sea.  These mountains are part of the reef’s remains, shaped by thousands of years of  continuous weathering.

Guadalupe Peak is the highest peak and highest point in Texas, standing at 8,749 feet.  In 1972 the Guadalupe Mountains were designated a national park.

The meandering Salt Flat seen today at the base of the range is what remains of a series of shallow seas that covered much of the area two million years ago.  Sediments washed into the seas from the mountain slopes.  The water evaporated, leaving behind a thick layer of minerals, primarily table salt or gypsum.

I often find myself exploring Salt Flat as I find the landscape fascinating.  The stark white gypsum juxtaposed against the brown Chihuahua Desert is remarkable.  It almost reminds of the person who likes to stand out from the crowd, which by the way, I’m in complete agreement with.   The imposing Guadalupe Mountain range in the background simply epitomizes the popular saying – “Everything is bigger in Texas”.

Throughout West Texas and southern New Mexico, two-lane desert highways stretch to vanishing points on horizons that seem to reach infinity under a limitless dome of sky.  West Texas driving is like this.  It’s this wide open space that gives me a true sense of a spirit of freedom.

Four wheels rotating on the steamy blacktop, moving me forward to what looks like the edge of the earth.  Mile after mile, the landscape steadily zooms by, yet the destination ahead remains motionless, in full view.  Other than a stray tumbleweed rolling across the pavement on a windy day, or a few passing cars racing by, there is only wide-open space feeding the spirit of freedom I so very much adore.  Only in the western United States have I found this, and it is something I look forward to after being confined within urban boundaries and tall buildings of London or Hong Kong.  Often, it is the journey that opens my mind to any possibility, permitting me to truly appreciate the destination.   The drive also allows me nothing but time, which in every day life, is limited.

The Red Rock Ranch in the Beach Mountains, two miles north of Van Horn, is one of the only public tours offered on private land in West Texas.    Some of the rocks on the ranch are more than a billion years old, among the oldest in Texas.

The Pre-Cambrian sandstone outcropping found at Red Rock is one of only four natural Precambrian sandstone exposures in the Western Hemisphere.  Who knew something like this existed in West Texas let alone Van Horn.  And with that, you might even be asking yourself where in the world is Van Horn?   The easy answer is Van Horn is right near Sierra Blanca, which you will not know either.  If you travel Interstate 10, however, you would have no choice except to pass through Van Horn either on your way to or from El Paso.

Back to the fascinating Red Rock Ranch, which is home to Darice McVay.   If we are to believe her, a host of imaginary friends dot the wide expanse landscape.  “Imagination can be as creative as one wishes,” according to ranch owner Darice McVay. “E. T. under a camel’s chin, Donald Duck or Puff the Magic Dragon, an Indian satellite dish and Red Rock Ranch’s very own Easter Island rock” are all rock formations created by wind erosion over millions of years.  If you dive into the stories with Darice, you’ll not only chuckle but also be mesmerized by the natural beauty that will surround you.

Many of these formations are naturally balanced, as if a sculptor has worked magic.   The tour ride through Red Rock Ranch is “nice and easy” and as smooth as a Frank Sinatra ballad.  There is no rush on this fascinating tour.  If you are fond of rugged desert landscapes, you’ll be more than satisfied you took the time for Red Rock Ranch.

Do be aware, however, you have to ask around in order to take the tour.   Van Horn is small enough and the people are friendly enough so you’ll easily be led in the right direction.  Just to give you an idea how friendly Van Horn folks are –
my visit was chronicled in the local newspaper as if I were a celebrity.

Travel Destination :: Fredericksburg Texas

LONG EXPOSURE LANDSCAPE PHOTO

I will always have fond memories of this farm in Fredericksburg, Texas. I saw it go from derelict to functional from my teenage years to just recently. After my parents passed away my chore cleaning turned to reflecting on all my parents gave me. Night gave way to remembering especially while roaming the property under the full moon. The farm is in a remote area and the neighbours are miles away. So, silence offered ample time to talk to my parents. I thanked them for their sacrifices, their unyielding support and for making me the person I am today. With all their faults, they were – and are – the best.

Many good memories flashed through my mind during this time.

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