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A Texas Odyssey Continued

Big Bend Area

Alpine, Texas

Stillwell Ranch, Walker Ranch, Balmorrhea

2005 Virgil G. Richards

November, 2004


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    This trip got off to a great start. We left Broken Arrow in the wee hours of Nov. 23rd, 2004 headed for the northern fringes of the Chihuahuan Desert. It's a good thing I enjoy driving... We were destined to meet up with members of the Austin Gem and Minerals Society in Alpine Texas on Thanksgiving morning. Our rendezvous point would be the Antelope Lodge run by Teri Smith, who also happens to be an avid rock-hound. 



    She was to be our guide and liaison to the local ranchers. Without her enthusiastic guidance, we would have been hard pressed to gain access to the many wonderful sites within a stones throw of Alpine.

Brandon and I managed to get in a little rock-hounding on the way to Alpine, stopping at Balmorrhea Lake to look for agates. We didn't find any of the elusive Balmorrhea Blue, but I did happen upon an unusual find... A perfect, water-clear terminated quartz crystal, very distinctive of what you might expect to find in the quartz zone of Mt. Ida, AR. Strange to find such a crystal here, at least a half mile from any dwelling, near the shore of Lake Balmorrhea in the roadside gravel... Perhaps there is some deeper meaning to such a find. Maybe I should find out what the mystical powers of this crystal might be...?



    Brandon and I headed for Alpine and points south shortly thereafter, stopping only to try out the only place around to get dinner, which was a quaint pizza parlor in Fort Davis. We were on our way south again in no time, passing through Alpine and Marathon, on the way to the Stillwell Ranch, which was home to Hallie Stillwell, and is still operated by her descendants as a working cattle ranch, gateway to Big Bend National Park, a favorite camping spot, hunting ground, and rock-hounding Mecca since the early 1900's. Just outside the entrance to the ranch is the Hallie Stillwell museum, a must see whether you're just passing through or spending time at the ranch.





    Brandon and I set up camp in a remote campsite a half mile in on the ranch and got settled in for a few days stay. After setting up camp we had a few minutes of daylight left to explore our surroundings. We looked around near our campsite for agates, flint, and the occasional piece of pet wood before dusk and wonderful sunset behind Stillwell Mountain...







    The following morning we drove back into Alpine to meet the group at the Antelope Lodge. From there we caravanned south to the entrance to Walker Ranch where we would be looking for pom-pom agate "biscuits", flower garden agate, jasper, and flint. Also to be found here is what we were led to believe was facet grade Labrodorite, a gemmy variety of feldspar. What we found wasn't Labrodorite at all, but rather another gem variety of feldspar, Bytonite, a clear, somewhat faint brown-tinged crystal of varying size. These were found throughout the area including matrix specimens containing both Bytonite and Carnelian agate.

    There appeared to be a fair quantity of fortification agate present, some boytroidal carnelian agate in a basalt matrix, but few "biscuits" were in evidence due to previous collection activity on the ranch. It did give me an opportunity to test the moxy of my '04 Polaris Sportsman 400 in the rougher terrain of the ranch. Much caution was taken to avoid any mishaps on the rocky slopes of the surrounding hills. Many were too steep even for the Polaris to safely traverse, but there was plenty of opportunity to test it's ground clearance, maneuverability, and rock crawling capabilities!








    All the while we were  nose to the ground on the trail of natural treasures, Jim Mercier and a few of the Austin crew were busily preparing a surprise for the group. This being the second annual Big Bend field trip over the Thanksgiving holiday, they were preparing smoked turkey and all the trimmings! This bunch knows how to field trip! Just about wherever we were we could smell the aroma of wood smoke that beckoned us near.






How can you resist the temptation of a bird that looks this good?





    Needless to say, we enjoyed lunch as much as we enjoyed collecting and spending time with great people and good friends here at the Walker Ranch. Although the fee to collect here was a bit steep at $35 per person, you did get to keep everything you collected at no additional cost, so in the end it works out alright if you use due diligence in your collecting methods.

Eventually it was time to pack up and head back to town, for Brandon and I it was time to head back to Stillwell Ranch about sixty miles away, and our campsite. It promised to be a pleasant evening, hopefully not quite as cool as it was the night before at around thirty-three degrees. Even in the desert it gets cold this time of year after the sun goes down. We had dinner at camp and relaxed for a bit before going up to the office across the highway from the ranch entrance to shower. By that time the moon was out, full and bright, so bright in fact, we didn't even need a light to see our way back at camp. It's amazing how much clearer things are out here in the desert at night, both in the air and in your mind. All the pent-up stress of daily life just kind of melts away out here and leaves you with a hint of a smile at how different life must be out here on the fringes of civilization...

    The following morning we were to meet the group at the entrance as we would be collecting here at the ranch that day. Around 9:00am the group arrived and we got checked in at the office, found out we could no longer get access to Maravillas Canyon and the Native American ruins there. At one time the Stillwell crew led tours to the canyon but a recent ownership change stopped all access. The present owners fear liability issues and insurance premiums so therefore will not grant access to the property. (Strange thing though, seems it doesn't apply to deer hunters with high powered rifles, who I'm sure must pay some premium for the privilege, and are much more likely to damage the historical ruins or be injured... Statistically speaking of course...) My oldest son Travis, an Eagle Scout, is well known for stating the 47% of all statistics are made up on the spot...

We had a lot of fun here at the Stillwell Ranch just the same. After getting further back on the ranch property, we discovered that all of the good material was gone... or so it appeared... We soon determined how and where to find quality material here. It did involve climbing, walking, and carrying what you found back to the truck. This in itself could be a challenge for even the hardiest of rock-hounds...






    Even so there was the occasional good find such as the sixty-six pound piece of petrified wood above (found by yours truly!). In the same area I found a wealth of lithic materials ranging from projectile point fragments, knapping flakes, and scrapers, to spalls and pre-forms. I am never less than amazed at the talent and ingenuity of my forefathers. I could easily sit atop one of the ridges called Stillwell Mountain and look out over the valley towards Maravillas Canyon and feel the presence of the Native Americans who trod there before me, who sat and formed tools and projectile points from the local flints and jaspers while keeping a watchful eye on the surrounding countryside  so as to give warning should danger draw near to their homes and families. This place was a special place... where young braves fought mock battles, preparing for when they would become warriors themselves. I could easily imagine a herd of buffalo in the distance, deer grazing on the sparse grasses of the desert, javelina rooting in the rocky soils for roots and insect grubs... all the while being stalked by young warriors desiring to display their hunting prowess with weapons made by their own hands and ingenuity... Ok, so I am somewhat taken with the lore of natives...

    The next morning which was a Saturday, we were to once again meet at the Antelope Lodge to receive instructions and find out where we would be collecting that day. We had considered the Woodward Ranch, but local sentiment led us in a different direction. Our guide had set us up to collect on a small one-hundred acre ranch just south of Alpine. The ranch is owned by two sisters who thought we were just nuts for wanting to pay to pick up rocks on their property! This turned out to be an ok place to collect, however, I would speculate that it should only be collected every couple of years by a small group or a few individuals.





    The surrounding area may prove to be very productive provided access can be had to private property in the area. It appeared as though the flat area where we parked was at one time possibly a village or campsite near a seasonal creek. Along the banks of the creek were found fragments of projectile points, and lithic remnants. Nearby were numerous indicators of ancient habitation in the area. I found a very nice uni-face scraper (or chopping instrument), very uniform and symmetrical, and nearby was a nice scraper knapped from clear agate, a nice find! There was massive calcite in an outcrop in the creek bank that produced a few representative specimens for collectors as well. While we were there, the property owners came by on their horses to see our finds, and nothing doing, Jim persuaded one of them to give Luda, his wife (also a Geologist, and who, incidentally, had never been on a horse before) a ride on one of their horses... a wonderful Kodak moment, very touching as the following pictures will attest to...






That's Jim giving Luda a helping... back?


    We had all pitched in the night before for steaks to be grilled for lunch. Once again the Austin crew had the barrel smokin' and the steaks sizzlin' on the grill. I don't eat this good at home... We had a great lunch... After leaving here we decided to go check out a few other spots along the highway that were mentioned in a reference book, but these didn't produce anything. A road cut got our attention for a few minutes after several dry stops, but still nothing of interest. Don't go by the reference books for roadside collecting, it's not there anymore... perhaps 40 years ago?








    So concludes the ramblings of this rock-hound one more time, I would mention that we stopped to see the Marfa Mystery Lights on our way north that evening, they are still a mystery... (we didn't see anything noteworthy). After traveling for a few hours north towards home, we stopped at a rest area and I caught a couple of hours sleep before heading on to Tulsa and a well deserved rest.


    Click here for a picture slideshow of all of the pictures on this page and then some. At some point (whenever I get a new digital camera, long story... coat pocket, wife, ice-water, any questions?) I'll add some pictures of what we collected on this trip.








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