The Migrating Monarchs

Written October 21, 2015

Our route had taken us across a changing Texas.  When we left Plano, we were in fairly flat country with some trees.  As we curled around to the southwest, it became somewhat more hilly and the trees more dense.  As we continued, the land dried out and flattened again to become more ranching than farming country.  The “wavelength” between the crests of land stretched out further and further, and we could see for long distances as we rolled over some of the crests.  The fences on the ranches got higher as we travelled, and I wondered if it was to keep deer in or out.  I’d seen signs for hunting ranches, and had spotted a few bucks with antlers of ridiculous size and bighorn sheep with impossible curls.

Now we were headed straight down, and the land really dried out.  As we neared the Mexican border near Del Rio, it reminded me a lot of eastern Oregon, except that where it dropped in along a river, leafy oaks, pecans, and other species grew very thick and shady.  The appearance was one of a cool, shady stream where one could water their horse and get some relief from the hot desert they had just crossed, but relief from the heat under these trees was brief.  As soon as we lifted away from the streambed, it was back into the dry and hot desert.   I expected tortoises, tarantulas, and scorpions under every rock.

Finally we hit Comstock and US 90, the same road we’d followed across southern Mississippi.  We followed it west a little ways to Seminole Canyon State Park, where we camped in the high open desert above a river canyon filled with ancient pictographs.  We were also now directly in the path of the migrating Monarch butterflies, and we watched them come through almost continuously in ones and threes, always flying to the south.  How a butterfly can make progress and maintain a heading in the wind just amazes me.  There were no trees for cover, only low brush and cacti.  But the butterflies stayed low to the ground, following the terrain and moving in and out of wind shelter, and occasionally bucking right into it.  But even then, they could do it and make headway.  Sometimes they would climb into the air when there was a calming, and once 30 feet high or so, would glide.  They would hold their wings wide and pick up a surprising amount of speed, smoothly descending as they slid through the air.  Then, flapping their wings, they rose and did it again, and were quickly out of sight.

Also running through the campground is the old right-of-way from the first Southern Pacific rail line built in 1882.  You can walk along it, following the contours closely as it winds around the hillside.  While approaching the park on US 90, the “new” rail line runs nearby, and you can see where the old railway bed loops away and was abandoned only ten years after being built.  Now there are empty cuts through small rock obstacles, whereas the present railway goes nearly straight through, with deep cuts and massive fills to level it out.  It reminded me of what oxbows in a river channel look like, where the old path has been abandoned, but is still visible, when the river finally succeeds in cutting straight through an obstacle.

The other neat thing for this Northwest kid was a tall galvanized-steel windmill, still turning and pumping water into a big stone basin.  In the park it’s a guzzler for wildlife, but at one time it must have watered a lot of cattle.  The basin is like a huge stone bowl, maybe four feet deep and 20 feet across, and the windmill keeps it brimming with a slow, steady trickle out the pipe.  Weathered but still visible was the brand “Aeromotor” big and bold on the tail vane.  As usual, I enjoyed looking up to figure out the mechanism, which seemed to have a governing system that would trim the tail vane and so swing the propeller off the wind if it blew too strong, and spun the windmill too fast.  Windmills like that still operate all over the place in west Texas, and I don’t think I’ll ever tire of seeing those unique western landmarks.

Take a look at the photos, too.