Texas Road Trip: Reconnaissance Resumes

After the eclipse ended, I packed up my equipment again; this time I collapsed the tripod legs—I would need the space to pack up my campsite, which I did the next morning.  I heated the dregs of leftover coffee thinking I would be stopping soon for breakfast on the road, including fresh brewed coffee. 

I made the mistake of not stopping in Fort Davis for that breakfast. I thought it was too soon, it was only ten miles from the campground.  But I should have stopped there anyway, because the next towns were too small, or too run down to support a café.  I went all the way to Del Rio, which was too large to have the local flavor of a small down diner.

I did find one however—a Mexican restaurant operating out of a Victorian style hotel.  The staff spoke Spanish, as did the other guests.  It was now lunchtime and I ordered the Monday special:  chili relleno (stuffed chilis?) which were delicious, and with rice and beans, too much.

I continued on toward Eagle Pass, the next large city, but in between was “Radar Base”, which is an intersection of roads where the 2024 solar eclipse is said to be at or near maximum—4 minutes, 30 seconds.  It is a miserable spot however—hot, dusty, windy, with heavy highway traffic and not much shade.  I’m not sure why it has a town designation—a local airstrip and a radio/cell phone/radar tower?

Radar Base. I’m not sure where the radar is. Click to enlarge.

I had intended to stay in Eagle Pass, but on learning that the room rates were $250+, I continued on to Uvalde, a town larger than I expected, and whose notoriety to the world would be established a week later.  There was some conference/convention going on, so the rates were still high, but I had reached the end of my range and desperately needed a shower, so I sprang for the room.

The shower was great.


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I wasn’t expecting to find an eclipse viewing site as I originally hoped—I was too late, all the prime locations had already been booked—or couldn’t be booked (the State Park reservation system only goes 5 months out).

But I felt obligated to document the candidates that I had looked up, as this was the purpose for traveling here.  I could at least take photos and maybe get contact info in case of cancellations.

I located a few more places along the Rio Frio, and the Lost Maples areas along the eclipse path.  There were various resorts and RV parks along a road east of the river, and I stopped at some and inquired.  Locals would stop and talk with me, just being friendly, and I learned a lot about the area. Here are my notes.

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Texas Road Trip: Lunar Eclipse

My cameras at work!

I started to set up for the lunar eclipse; it would occur tonight (this was not a drill)!  But by the time I had the tripods and mount in place, I realized that I had left a critical piece of equipment behind—my camp chair.  I left the stuff for a 10-minute trip back to the campsite to retrieve it.

On return, I found the other guy who had obtained a pass for the overlook (required if we wanted to stay past 10:00 pm).  He was an interesting person who was ok with my being focused on setting up rather than chatting. 

A few other visitors dropped by, including one who was on foot with some portable camera gear.  After a while he decided he wanted a different viewpoint and so he hiked away, disappearing below the crest. 

I was ready at moonrise.  This time I could see the moon as it appeared on the horizon.  I centered it in the cameras, started the tracking and started taking pictures.  The moon rose in a light orange color, brightening to white and then about one-half hour later, the eclipse began.

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Manitoba Nights

Aurora in the fog. Photo by Eric Persson.

I recently spent a week In our neighbor to the north, specifically the Canadian province of Manitoba.  We had booked a trip with friends to a remote lodge nearly a year prior, and we were finally there!  The travel brochures promised spectacular scenery and wildlife, interesting geology, world class fishing, and northern lights.  I wasn’t all that interested in fishing, but I’m always interested in the other items on that list. (And the fishing turned out to be a highlight!)

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Texas Road Trip: Driving Adventures, Mistakes Made

Looking over the (dry) Rio Grande to Mexico. The white canvas arch covers the US Border Station where I would soon be detained.

I intended to visit Big Bend Park and found it on my Texas road atlas southeast of Marfa—except that it was labelled “Big Bend Ranch State Park”.  It had what appeared to be a major route through it, Casa Piedra Road, that I could take and see the terrain and park facilities, then continue through to the town of Presidio, where I could find lunch, and then take another major road back home.

So that was the plan.  But it turns out that Big Bend Ranch State Park is entirely different from Big Bend National Park. I was confused but it didn’t matter. I missed the turnoff for the road through the park and stayed on US 67 to Presidio.

And I continued to follow US 67, thinking it would show me how to get to Big Bend Park.  Eventually I found myself approaching a major checkpoint—the customs and border inspections.

I looked for a way to turn around before actually getting there, but I saw no convenient way to do this and suddenly found myself going through a covered channel with many many speed bumps—aggressive and alternating sides of the lane, then full width and strategically placed.  There was no place to exit; the lane continued on and I thought maybe there would still be a turnaround opportunity.  But there wasn’t, and I was now passing a long line of cars headed in the other direction, nearly all with Texas plates, stopped, waiting their turn to be inspected and pass into the U.S.

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Texas Road Trip: Historic Fort Davis and Marfa

Prada Marfa, one of several roadside art installations outside Marfa TX

Fort Davis is the name of the town, “Historic Fort Davis” is the reconstructed early fort, established here in the 1850’s to protect the growing number of emigrants, and the mail and freight traffic to support and supply them in the westward expansion.  My national parks pass gave me entry and access to a walking tour of the fort grounds to see the buildings that have been restored, and exhibits in some of them depicting the conditions and resources of a military outpost.  It was very interesting to learn of the difficult conditions on the frontier, and the life of enlisted men stationed at the fort.  It is probably not so interesting to small children; a rudimentary awareness of US history is helpful.  I recommend visiting in the morning, before the temperatures become excessive.

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Texas Road Trip: McDonald Observatory and Lunar Eclipse Practice

A peek through a guest observing port at the HET. The mirror is held by the blue-green frame; a curved reflection of struts can be seen on its surface.

This is a very dark sky part of Texas, and so it makes sense to locate an observatory here.  It is semi-open to the public for self-guided tours at the visitor center, and the grounds hosting three major observatory domes and many smaller ones.  One of them allowed a peek at the 10-meter Hobby Eberly Telescope, a multifaceted composite mirror on a huge mount structure.  I saw it in its resting position, perhaps for maintenance, or an instrument changeover.  As I tried to identify the mirror segments, I realized that what appeared to be the interior of the dome building, was actually its reflection on the mirrors, their reflectivity so high as to make them seem invisible!

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Texas Road Trip: Diversion to Fort Davis

Sunset at Davis Mountains

I turned away from the path of the eclipse onto a route that would take me to deeper and darker skies.  There are a number of dark sky areas in Texas, and one of them hosts a famous observatory-  McDonald Observatory, home of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (10m aperture, tied for 2nd largest in the world).  The nearest town is Fort Davis (population ~1000), a 45-minute drive away. 

Just outside of Fort Davis is Davis Mountains State Park, where, earlier in the day, before leaving the wifi and phone services of Leakey, I was able to reserve a campsite.  I learned by calling that there was a lodge at the state park, but it was full (and had been and would be for quite a while).  Similarly, I learned that the campground was nearly full—six sites remained!  So I provided my credit credentials and reserved one. 

I am still adjusting to the new way of getting away, through the use of smart phones and websites to make camping arrangements.  I understand this can make the process of accommodating an ever-growing set of camping clients more efficient, but it removes some of the spontaneity of life on the open road– exploring without fixed destinations, and deciding at whim the right place to stop for the night.

On my way to claim my reserved campsite, I was diverted from the highway to a Border Patrol checkpoint.  Two uniformed officers, one with a dog, questioned every vehicle.  I asked what they were looking for.  “Narcotics and human trafficking” was the response.  I replied I had neither, eliciting a harsh look.  After noting my Minnesota license plates, they gave me a pass and I continued on.

This was on US-90, at a location a hundred miles or more from the border.  It seemed odd to me that there would be a large permanent checkpoint here.  But I don’t know the patterns of drug and human smuggling.

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Texas Road Trip: The Historic Leakey Inn

The Historic Leakey Inn

The times of traveling all day and then stopping and finding a place to spend the night are becoming rare.  Places fill up, and it is now necessary to make reservations ahead of time, even for campgrounds, maybe especially for campgrounds during the travel season.  On this day however I was lucky.  Of the few hotels in Leakey TX, The Historic Leakey Inn” still had a room available as I pulled up at around 6:00.

The reception desk was empty when I found it and so I waited, anticipating that someone would eventually notice me.  While I was there, the rustic fireplace lobby was filling with people, locals who greeted each other by name and seemed to be looking forward to some sort of event or activity.  A number of the women were wearing the same style sweatshirt, decorated with a yellow ribbon and declaring “Prayer is the Answer”.

Eventually the manager/owner/wife found me at the check in counter.  Her past training as a flight attendant probably contributed to her natural style, being very friendly and helpful as she located a room for me.  I learned that there was a large patio and dining room that was offering their nightly specials—drinks and a few food items.  This was what had attracted the locals to this time and place.  The host told me that they had hatched this idea a few years ago, but it had now become this popular “monster” that they had to keep up with.  Oh, the burden of a successful business!

After settling into my rustic but clean room with stone walls and too few outlets for my collection of digital gadgets, I went back to the patio lounge and ordered a margarita.  The young bartender had to check my ID.  Not for my birth date, but for membership.  Seeing my confusion, a man next to me explained that the Texas rules for small town liquor licenses required I join a private “club”, before they could serve me.  The man turned out to be the manager/owner/husband, and he went on to explain that this was one of several defects in the state’s liquor laws, which for some reason the governor had not seen fit to correct in a recent update to those laws.  The last thing I wanted to do was discuss politics in Texas, so I said (aware of my Yankee accent) “That’s interesting.” 

I am now a full-fledged member of the “Leakey Inn Club”.

I also ordered one of the food items offered that evening: “Tacos Tapatio” a descriptor I had to look up, which meant “tacos from the city of Guadalajara”.  Maybe the two cooks working furiously in the small kitchen were from there.  The tacos were unique rolled up tortilla tubes of carnitas, deep fried, then covered with lettuce and veggies in a white sauce like coleslaw, with sliced tomatoes on top.  Delicious!

In fact the Mexican food has gotten even better the farther south I go!  The previous night, in Llano, I enjoyed a burrito with beef, jalapenos, and other goodies.  This just kept proving there was more to discover.

The Texans in this rural area are hard to describe—they seem like ranchers, mechanics and laborers, often wearing seed caps, usually with short-cropped hair but many with extensive beards of various forms—full beard, chin beard, mustache, each trying to be distinctive if not distinguished.  They are boisterous, in a way that is both polite and rebellious, which, to my surprise, I found endearing.

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Texas Road Trip: Hill Country Eclipse Survey

A valuable reference for finding observing sites. No batteries or network connection required.

I spent the day driving southwest along the eclipse path visiting candidate viewing sites that I had researched prior to the trip. I found them with the help of Google Maps of course, and with the wonderful customization of it for the eclipse by Xavier Jubier. I also bought the most recent version of the DeLorme road atlas for Texas. I actively looked for the places closest to the center line with the longest totality duration. At the time I thought I was two years ahead of schedule, not two years behind! Here are the notes I made.

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Texas Road Trip: Start at the Top

I headed to the northernmost point of my eclipse path survey, to Poppy’s Pointe, an RV park with cabins on Buchanan Lake.  It reminded me, not pleasantly, of a place we had stayed along the Ontario shore of Lake Superior

As I drove in and located the office, I was met by a man in a golf cart.  I asked if he was the owner—no he was the maintenance guy, but he could take me to her, get in.  I got into the cart and he drove about 100 feet to her trailer.  She seemed a little annoyed but took me to her office in her golf cart, about 150 feet back from where we had just come.

I eventually told her about the eclipse in 2024.  She said she was contracting the whole place to someone, they just had to agree on a price.  She also told me that she had been getting calls for four years.  The property is 750 feet from the eclipse centerline.  This was the moment when I realized that despite being here two years ahead, I was already too late!

Poppy’s Pointe is a private RV park.  There are some other parks on Buchanan Lake which for some reason were not on my list to stop and visit.  I wish I had, because Black Rock Park also has camping (tents and RVs) and cabins.  It is part of the LCRA Parks system (Lower Colorado River Authority).  From their website, it looks like the reservation system goes one year out. 

There are numerous other resorts around Buchanan Lake.  Check Google Maps to find them; It may be possible to book them for the eclipse.

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