Monday, January 30, 2017

Fort Phantom Hill

A few miles north of Abilene Texas FM-600 tracks along a low ridge between the Clear Fork of the Brazos River and Elm Creek.

When headed upstream along the Clear Fork the gentle climb up to this ridge has an imperceptible curve to it and apparently, back in the days of open range, long views, and no man made landmarks, that curve had the effect of making the ridge seem to keep moving further and further away as you approached and eventually, when you did 'arrive' at the relatively flat top, it didn't seem like there was ever a ridge there at all, hence the name.

During the mid-1800's Texas hosted several, roughly north-south lines of 'Frontier' Forts designed to protect the growing pioneer population from the sometimes unhappy natives. (Never mind that the pioneers were the invading force of the day!) As the pioneers moved further and further west the line of forts kept shifting, so most of them didn't last all that long.

 Today the remains of Fort Phantom Hill have been preserved and I spent a solitary, and windy, afternoon there one day.

It hasn't always been this quiet at the fort. during the late 1990's/early 2000's the fort was host to an annual rendezvous that had history buffs, reenactors and other like minded people swarming the grounds of the old fort, and an episode of the Travel Channel's short lived Dig Wars was filmed here about 2012, but there was no one around today.

The visitor center, sitting there alongside the 8 slot parking lot is unmanned and basic. Pretty much just an open-air pavilion with a couple bathrooms tucked in the back.

Large motorhomes, small motorhomes with toads and vehicles with trailers should not try entering the small lot but rather stay out along the shoulder instead. A short stretch of shoulder on either side of FM-600 in front of the fort is extra wide and there was very little traffic on the road the day I was there.

But, tucked in under that pavilion, along with the usual information plaques, you will find a dispenser with large (So large it was a challenge keeping it under control in the wind.) brochures with more information and a self-guided tour of the fort.

Note, the guided tour often mentions building as being 'constructed of jacal', but don't go looking in your handy taxonomy reference for the stuff because jacal is a building method not a tree, plant or other material. Jacal is thin branches (Much easier to find in many places than thick logs) driven into the ground vertically side by side, stabilized with even thinner material woven through horizontally, sometimes plastered with a mud/grass mix to make it even more weather tight, and roofed with thatch over more thin branches bent over and fastened along the ridge line.

The fort had no stockade walls and was big, much of it built using the previously mentioned jacal method, which, as you can imagine, doesn't last as long as some other building methods.

The missing parts of the fort are shown on the map in white outline, (Because it can't support a wide roof, larger jacal buildings tended to be very narrow for their length, like the original barracks building which was over 300 feet long but only 18 feet wide.) but there are enough stone foundations and chimneys still standing, shown on the map in solid colors, to keep yourself oriented.

One end of the headquarters building, which included the commander's office and a small cell for those soldiers that just can't play well with others, was all stone and still stands today though the jacal part of the building which used to be there on the left of the photo above, is naturally missing.

Unlike many of the building, including both versions of the aforementioned main barracks for the 5 companies stationed there, the commander's quarters was of log construction over a strong stone foundation and even a cellar, the stone parts of which still survive today.

Lesser officers got the stone foundation and chimney (as opposed to the more common but shorter lived log and mud chimney.) but not the cellar.

A cluster of surviving officer's quarters chimneys still standing in the distance there on the left. there was another group of (Junior?) officer's quarters just this side of the token cannon, but their log and mud chimneys didn't survive.

One place where they didn't skimp on heavy construction was the commissary/storeroom.

This two story building of stone and heavy logs was considered one of the best-built commissaries of all the Texas forts.

It could be that it was so well built because the roof of first version, now called the temporary commissary on the tour,  leaked badly and ended up destroying hard-to-come-by provisions.

Life at a Texas fort wasn't at all like a John Wayne movie, full of drama, exciting patrols and frequent battles.

The reality was far more likely to be long, boring days of hard work, (The soldier of the day carried an ax or shovel far more often than a riffle.) bad food, close quarters and struggling with less than hospitable weather with limited resources and supplies.

Those days a soldier was far more likely to die of disease or work-a-day injury than he was of arrow or bullet

which made the hospital an important part of the fort's daily life

 and kept the post surgeon, who lived in quarters close by, busy.

Present day Fort Phantom Hill is not a flashy place full of the colorful displays and interactive exhibits that would keep the electronics-age kids engaged, (For more on a place like that stick around!)

but I didn't mind. That, along with it's location somewhat off the beaten path is probably why I had the place to myself all afternoon and could sit quietly and absorb the history and feel of the place.

Which I took full advantage of.

Pondering the sort of drivers; tradition, poverty, racial oppression, new beginning, need for adventure; that might motivate a man to join the army with it's low pay, iffy living and working conditions, and few benefits.

Imagining the realities of living far from home, usually far from population centers. Living a life back-dropped by the incessant sound of axes producing the stacks of building material and precious firewood needed every day, the shouts of tired men dealing with unruly horses down by the stables and in the half-light of the leaky, drafty, dirty, stinking, overcrowded barracks the painful groans of men with losing hands almost lost among the whoops of those raking in their winnings, the games sometimes interrupted by the piercing but welcome squeal of worn wooden wheel hub on dry axle as a long-awaited supply wagon trudges, oxen paced, into the fort.

Ahem. Anyway. . . if you do stop by this lonely little place out there north of Abilene

don't forget to cross the road, which was, at best, nothing but a faint track when the fort was active,

and check out the heavily, and beautifully, built armory where stuff-that-can-go-bang was stored well away from the populated part of the fort.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Accidental Geocacher

You would think geocaching would be right up my alley. Take exploring the outdoors, throw in a treasure hunt and a little mystery, add a touch of tech and what's not to like!

I've tried it out a few times. Looking up some caches in the area where I'm going to be tramping around anyways I've carefully written down the coordinates and hints, (Cell service to access the web sites is often non-existent where I'm wandering.) I've scrutinized my maps, stumbled around with my eyes glued to the GPS attempting to make the jumping numbers settle to the right spot, tried to decipher the clue(s), and I've actually found a couple caches, but for some reason the whole sport just hasn't taken hold with me.

It could be that I find myself getting distracted by what's around me and forget to keep track of the little gadget with the LED screen that's supposed to tell me where I am. It could be that doing the research and deciphering the clues is too much like work. Or it could be that I'm not much into the whole Kilroy-Was-Here thing with signing logs and making web-site entries, (Remember Kilroy? He popped up during WWII and my dad had a book of some WWII cartoon solder always getting himself into trouble that I can remember looking through several times and Kilroy was always popping up in it.)

Whatever the reason, geocaching just isn't my thing.

Which is why, when I wandered off trail in Copper Breaks to find a better vantage point above the Pease river

and spotted this tucked up under some brush next to a fence above the river I thought 'Oh man! Some poor fisherman lost his tackle box climbing the fence' That sucks!'

Geocaching never occurred to me until I crawled under the brush, drug the box out into the open and peeked inside. I guess I was expecting dried up worms or something and was actually slightly disappointed.

I know, I know, now days its considered lazy or uneducated to say drug instead of dragged since drug is not the official past tense of drag, But I grew up using words like drug and hung and a few others like that as past-tense verbs and no one said a thing about it so now it's ingrained. Saying I hanged the Christmas lights may technically be correct but it just sounds so wrong!

Of course this just shows off my hypocrisy since I'm a stickler for proper use of language in other areas. Don't get me started on that ridiculously misused  'I don't believe in - - -' phrase. I don't believe in ghosts; Ding Ding Ding! Correct! (Even if there are ghosts, in this case the usage is correct.) I don't believe in violence; Blaaaat! Wrong! Unless you really don't think there's any violence in the world. In that case you have bigger problems than language usage.  Oh, and by the way, there is no such thing as a natural disaster, there are only the same natural events that have been occurring around here for billions of years. True, sometimes the results of a natural event are not something we would have wished for during our brief spark of existence on this earth, but it's still just a natural event. In fact without volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, floods and weather events this earth wouldn't exist as we know it in the first place, and neither would we. (. . . Oh crap! I guess I got started anyway, all by myself. . .)

And no, I didn't sign the log before I closed up the box and tucked it back where I found it.

Even if I was so inclined to leave my own personal bread-crumbs strewn about I'm pretty sure it's against the rules to count coup when you just accidentally stumble across a cache. . .

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Getting Lost in Copper Breaks

Copper Breaks is not one of the largest State Parks in Texas, but you can get in a good 15 miles of hiking without doubling too many of the trail sections.

And with maps like this posted at a couple of the major trailheads you would think that the hiking would be simple,

Another one of my early morning sombra selfies.
but don't let the fancy map-signs and nice wide, closely mown trails fool you.

Sure, at first all seems great. You're stepping along with confidence and enjoying the scenery, hardly paying attention to the trail at all,

then this happens!

That seemingly clear sign at the trailhead and the nice wide path are only there to lure you in just far enough, then you're on your own, wondering if that's the trail. . . or maybe it's over there. . . or it could be up there. . .

The reason I took that photo of the map at the trailhead was because just prior to that I had lost the trail, Chris' Link to be precise, classified as an easy, level (Not!) one mile trail where you can 'experience the rolling plains landscape'.

Eventually, having had enough of trying to figure out where the trail is while at the same time slamming into sudden limestone ridges and dropping wheels into hidden gullies when all I wanted was an easy peddle astride the Quad-B  for a get-antiquated late-afternoon wander around the park, but not wanting to backtrack either, I ended up bushwacking cross-country, through brush and grasses and tiny, unseen clumps of Cholla-type cactus (I ended up with pants-legs and sock-tops full of the nearly invisible spines.) to where I knew there was a park road. The whole time dragging and horsing the decidedly not bushwhacking-friendly Quad B along with me!

And it wasn't just me.

It just so happened that right after I snapped that shot of the trailhead a young couple burst out of the brush 20 yards to my left. The girl looked around, hustled over to the sign-post, pulled her paper copy of the trail map out of a pocked and started comparing both, trying to figure out where she was. The fella with her had no qualms about utilizing all available resources and asked if I knew where we were.

Upon hearing where they had parked I told them their truck was at the other end of the park, (Oh crap! the girl exclaimed.) and they had about an hour before sunset then another 15 minutes of usable twilight after that. (Oh crap! the girl exclaimed again.)

As they hustled off towards their truck, down the easier to follow road this time, I wheeled on up to the Pease River Valley Overlook to wait out that hour till sunset.

Now that I knew where I was relative to where The Van was,

and had confidence in my gear, namely a headlamp, GPS and a map,

I had no qualms about being able to utilize the roads to get back to The Van after dark; and I made it just fine.

But danged if the next day I didn't turn right around and lose another trail!!!

On paper my first hike that day

had all the earmarks of one of my typical hikes.

There was some confusion between the trail sign for Big Loop and the map which called it Long Loop, but come on! If I couldn't figure that out I had no business being out on the trail in the first place!

And the fact that this sign was in 'warning-watch-your-ass' red was slightly disconcerting,

but it was a pleasant hike through some small canyons

with the occasional glimpse of the Pease River down below.

and though they weren't marked as such, I'm pretty sure I found one or two of the old copper mining locations.

Eventually I veered off for a side trip on the Rocky Ridge Loop, and boy was glad I was on foot and not the Quad-B!

The sign is just in case I couldn't figure out the trial was going to drop steeply in a few feet.
Up to this point it was still a fairly normal hike, albeit a steep one on places.

But then I came to here, this rocky ledge curled in a crescent above the head end of a steep canyon, and I lost the trail. . .

I hunted around for a while but never did figure out where the dang trail went! So I scrambled up the ridge above the ledge then worked my way back down towards the lake, and another trail, through a rather rugged ravine.

By the time I got back to an obvious trail I was kind of perturbed, beginning to seriously doubt my trail-prowess, so headed back and picked up the other end of the Rocky Ledges Loop so I could figure out where I went wrong.

Well foolish me!!  Why wouldn't I expect the original trail, a trail designated as a mountain-bike trail, to drop off the ledge right over a 4' abyss and skirt along a rock-face at a 45 degree angle trying it's damnedest to throw me down to the rocks below??!!!

Once I got that sorted out I carefully hunted around but still could find no trail-markers of any kind to steer the hiker into taking a sharp left right over a short cliff, so I took a moment to build a couple cairns in case someone else as clueless as me came along later.

Ah, but you didn't really think this park and it's trails were done with me for the day did you??

After a short break back at camp I allowed myself to be suckered in once more, even though I knew better, by the lure and easy promise of the un-mapped Power Line Trail.

Despite recent experience to the contrary, I cluelessly straddled the Quad-B and set out with the foolish expectation of an easy ride,

but the nice, civilized mowed path soon turned into this,

and then this!

Eventually the trail made it's way up a final steep slope to campsite #39, perched there on the edge of the canyon, in the equestrian camping area (Remember, no horse needed!) where it came out right along side the table-shelter with no indication on that end that there might be an official trail down there below.

All in all, Copper Breaks turned out to be more interesting than the maps would indicate, and I still haven't done any of the trails at the north end of the park!!  But those will have to wait for next time since I have an appointment in Abilene.